Time to worry, but not panic

To borrow a line from an old Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt movie, "What if this is as good as it gets?" That's not exactly the cinematic quote you want popping into your head when the Packers play their home opener. It's not a question you thought you'd have to ponder on the day the organization retired the late, great Reggie White's No. 92 at halftime. But after an embarrassing 26-24 loss to Cleveland Browns, when the Packers seemingly had plenty to play for, it seems unavoidable.

It's only two games into the season and way too early to start panicking, but the Packers didn't look that good in the preseason, they couldn't muster a touchdown at Detroit for the first time in 77 games to kick off their 2005 campaign and against a Cleveland team thought to be among the league's talent-poor, bottom-feeders, they looked as if they were playing a Super Bowl contender for much of the game.

No, don't panic. But feel free to worry. A lot. Because if Green Bay can't find a way to win at Detroit and can't beat Cleveland at home, what on earth are they going to do when they face Carolina, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Philadelphia? With fourteen games to play, the Packers look a lot more like a 6-10 bunch than they do 10-6.

Green Bay entered its contest against Cleveland with some pressing questions. Who would pick up the slack at receiver with Javon Walker out of the line-up? Would Joey Thomas be an upgrade over Ahmad Carroll at cornerback? Could the penalties that plagued them the week before be eliminated? The answers were hardly comforting.

Donald Driver finished with 105 yards receiving, including a short pass over the middle that he turned up field for a 42-yard score and a 7-0 lead, but there wouldn't be another pass reception longer than 20 yards until 4:38 was left in the fourth quarter when Brett Favre hit Antonio Chatman for 22 yards. Robert Ferguson, who took Walker's spot in the starting line-up, didn't even have a catch until the closing minutes of the third quarter. His longest play was a 19-yard touchdown catch that pulled the Pack within two points. But Coach Mike Sherman said it wasn't that they weren't trying to go deep, the plays just weren't there.

"We took shots down the field but they have to be open shots and when they're playing your vertical routes like they did last week, it gets tough, so you can't force balls or you have interceptions," Sherman said.

Like Detroit the week before, Cleveland seemed content to keep their safeties back in a ‘Cover 2.' Favre's 342 passing yards and three touchdowns may look good if he's your fantasy football quarterback, but he only had 77 yards at the half and much of that 300-plus total came late in the game when time was running out and Cleveland was more than happy to give up anything in bounds that kept the clock moving. The Packers further obliged them by taking their time getting up to the line on several plays during their failed comeback. Regardless, expect to see ‘Cover 2' from every opponent going forward until the Packers find a way to beat it.

Defensively, the Packers couldn't have been further from the great teams that White was a part of. This group has not had a turnover in eight quarters of play and is lacking anything resembling a consistent play-maker. At cornerback, Thomas wasn't flagged as often as Carroll, but was just as ineffective in his first start. While he'll make Sportscenter for his play on Sunday, it will be as the guy Browns' rookie Braylon Edwards victimized on an 80-yard touchdown catch. Really, you could flip a coin between Thomas and Carroll and so far, either way you lose.

And while they didn't accumulate yellow flags the way they did the previous week, it seemed like everyone was trying hard to keep pace early on with eight penalties in the first half (five accepted), including one on linebacker Nick Barnett that gave Cleveland first-and-goal at the one-yard line and led to the first of two touchdowns by previously unheard of tight end Steve Heiden, who by games' end looked like a combination of Tony Gonzales and Antonio Gates.

Making matters worse, was that this was a chance to honor one of the greatest men to ever pull on a Packers uniform, if not any NFL uniform. Green Bay was humiliated by the Minnesota Vikings a couple years back when they unveiled the renovated Lambeau Field for their whole ‘Re-Birth of a Legend.' But scheduling the Browns for White's retirement ceremony seemed like a much safer bet. It wasn't. And even a plea from former Packers center and current play-by-play man Larry McCarren who was emceeing White's induction at midfield couldn't get them going.

"They knew how important it was with all the fanfare and the great player we wanted to honor today with a win," Sherman said. "We're very disappointed for everybody, our fans, our organization and our players."

It's only September. Let's hope it gets better than this.

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